The kidnapped French nationals worked for uranium mining companies in Niger [AFP]

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed the abduction of five French nationals in Niger and said that it will make demands to France regarding them.

"In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahedeen will later transmit their legitimate demands," a voice claiming to be AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said in an audio message released on Tuesday.

"We also warn [the French government] against any sort of stupidity," he added, in reference to a possible military operation, as French military planes patrolled the desert on Tuesday in an effort to locate the group.

The statement, which did not mention the two African hostages, added that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian, led the kidnap operation.

"Following the promise of our emir, Abou Moussab [Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel], a group of heroic mujahedeen last Wednesday, under the command of Sheikh Abou Zeid, succeeded in penetrating the French mining site at Arlit in Niger," the message said.

France confirms claims

France has authenticated the claim, and says it has good reason to believe the hostages are alive.

"We are in a position to confirm the authenticity of the claim," Romain Nadal, a French foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.

"We have not received proof of life, but we have good reasons to believe the hostages are alive."

He said he was not aware of any demands from the hostage takers.

AQIM, which is active in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region, has been increasingly targeting French interests.

The claim came hours after Niger's government spokesman, Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah, said the hostages - also including a citizen of Togo and another from Madagascar - were still alive.

He did not say what that information was based on.

All seven hostages had worked at a huge uranium mine in northern Niger run by French state-owned nuclear power giant Areva. They were abducted by armed men last Thursday.

Source: Agencies